The small-screen penchant for overwrought breast cancer melodramas tends to drown out more psychologically acute portrayals, so it’s refreshing to find a film that addresses the issue in a restrained yet emotionally engaging way. Helmer Martin Koolhoven is known for eliciting topnotch performances from his actors, and “South” is no exception. A simply told story that mostly eschews fireworks in favor of character, pic’s exploration of a woman’s inability to reintegrate her life after a mastectomy could attract an arthouse crowd with its sympathetic handling.
Martje (Monic Hendrickx) is the well-loved boss at an industrial laundry employing an assortment of immigrant women. Neither beautiful nor ugly, she has a social awkwardness outside the laundry that disappears among her all-female workers, with whom she is an encouraging, solicitous presence.
Outside a fast-food joint, she’s engaged in a conversation by genial truck driver Loe (Frank Lammers), but when he goes to get them both coffee, Martje scrams. Loe unexpectedly turns up in her office, applying for the job of company delivery man. Martje expresses surprise he would want to give up his long-haul routes to the warm south in favor of a routine local drive, but he flirtatiously explains he now wants to stay closer to home.
The trucker’s flattering persistence and his physical exuberance work its magic, and she leads him nervously into her apartment at the back of the office, hesitating to tell him about her lack of one breast. Sensing discomfort but attributing it to other things, Loe promises her she can trust him, but once he jumps away at the discovery of her prosthetic breast, all her fears are confirmed. When his attempts to calm her down fail, he leaves her sobbing on the bed.
Aware something is amiss, Martje’s fiercely loyal workers assume Loe tried to rape their boss, so they gang up on the trucker and lock him in the boiler room. After closing time, Martje opens the door, but the two of them argue, and she locks him in again. In the morning, before opening hours, she turns the industrial washers on so the noise drowns out Loe’s shouts.
When Martje discovers Loe has a wife, she blows a gasket, screaming at him through the locked door about his betrayal of women. Obviously desperate to get out, Loe tells Martje what she wants to hear: that she’s the only woman he wants, and if she lets him out, they’ll go south together.
Martje’s tenuous hold on the reality of their relationship becomes more and more untenable, and she allows herself to imagine all could be perfect between them. She goes to the prosthetics shop and orders a more natural looking breast, and begins to make plans for his release and their departure.
No question the story has its hysterical moments, but Koolhoven (“The Cave”) approaches them with compassionate reserve. Martje is obviously already a lonely, unbalanced woman, but circumstances conspire to wrench her out of sanity. The screenplay is rounded enough to effortlessly bring in other elements, most especially the plight of powerless immigrant women — including a turn by Oksana Akinshina (“Lilya 4-Ever”), as an indigent mother with a baby — without losing sight of the main focus.
This sort of tale hangs or falls on the strength of the performers, and here the terrific cast makes it all believable. Olga Louzgina, as Martje’s Russian forewoman Galina is the picture of a steadfast, tough colleague, and special mention should be made of the remarkable Akinshina, who again seems to completely inhabit her complex character in a noteworthy way for someone only 16.
In the end however, the film rests with Monic Hendrickx, twice winner of the Dutch Film Festival’s actress award, and known Stateside through the 2001 film “Zus & Zo.” She understands the strengths and fragility of this damaged woman, and makes the inexorable slide into delusion and madness a disturbing journey to watch.
End credits mention Dogma ’95 as an inspiration, but Koolhoven wisely refuses to be a slave to those dictates, and he uses a judicious combination of spare camera movements and handheld work without any of the annoyances often associated with pure Dogma films. Bluesy music suits the tone.